Keith Lee Morris won the Eudora Welty Prize for his story "The Culvert" in 2005 and is the author of two prior novels and two collections of short stories. His latest novel, Travelers Rest, was released in January 2016 to strong reviews that praised his deft writing and his ability to build a really suspenseful and scary story. He received an M.F.A. in writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is currently Associate Professor in Creative Writing at Clemson University. Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to visit with Keith Lee Morris at his home in Clemson, South Carolina, to discuss these Five Questions.
STAY THIRSTY: Your new novel, Travelers Rest, has been called, "an absorbing and intelligent novel" by Publishers Weekly and "a subtle, near-flawless portrait of the unique ways that small-town life can both nurture and suffocate its residents" by Booklist. How did you settle on writing a story about a family marooned in a snowbound small town with a chilling past and an unusual application of the laws of time?
KEITH LEE MORRIS: Completely by accident. I started off writing a novel about a dream I had of a family marooned at a strange beach house on the coast of Georgia (which is scorchingly hot, certainly not snowbound) and then it somehow turned into what you describe above. A friend of mine opened a microbrewery in Wallace, Idaho, and I happened to be visiting there on the night they shipped their first kegs to the bars in town, so naturally we spent a good part of the evening going from place to place sampling the merchandise, and the next thing you know another old friend of mine was showing us through this old, abandoned hotel that his mother had bought, and another friend of mine somehow managed to get himself locked in one of the rooms. That's where the idea really started to take shape for me. So I guess you can blame it on my friends.
STAY THIRSTY: Bestselling author Charlotte Rogan has said that, "Keith Lee Morris knows what fiction is made for" and Pulitzer Prize-Winner Robert Olen Butler has said that, "Keith Lee Morris is a writer whose books I have promised myself never to skip." How do you feel about such high praise?
KEITH LEE MORRIS: Those are blurbs. I have great respect for both of those authors, but if there's one thing readers should know, it's never pay attention to blurbs. I'm not saying that the writers who provide the blurbs are dishonest (authors usually only blurb books that they actually like), but the publisher is going to keep fishing for good ones until they get what they want. If other authors don't like the book enough to provide a blurb or don't express their interest colorfully enough, you're never going to see it on the back of a book jacket. The blurbs are just what the publisher wants the reader to see.
STAY THIRSTY: What came first for you, the plot or the major characters? How did you construct the story that became Travelers Rest?
KEITH LEE MORRIS: When it comes to novels, 99% of the time for me characters come first. Travelers Rest would represent the 1% when that wasn't the case. I've been writing short stories for years that I think of as "dream fiction," stories that are based loosely on actual dreams I've had, and this was an attempt to extend that practice to the length and breadth of a novel. For that reason, it really started with an imagined situation more than it did with the characters, and that was a difficult thing for me – I was used to working from within the characters and letting the action unfold outward, sort of. With Travelers Rest, I really felt that, while constructing the mystery of the hotel for the reader, I was really going about the business of solving the mystery of the characters for myself.
STAY THIRSTY: Travelers Rest begins with an epigraph from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Why Proust and why this particular quotation?
KEITH LEE MORRIS: A Proust quote not only serves as an epigraph for the novel as a whole, but also serves as the opening for each of the three individual sections. I was reading Remembrance of Things Past the entire time I was writing the book – it influenced everything I was doing. The opening quote recalls a memory, an event from the past, and then suggests that the recollection is more important than either that past moment itself or the present moment that it informs and influences. It's an acknowledgment that, when we employ memory as a way to help us understand what's happening to us in the present, we transcend even the present moment by using the memory to help us predict what will happen next, what will happen in the future. We live each moment not only in an acute awareness of the past, but also in the process of an intense and speedy calculation of how what we've experienced in the past predicts what we'll experience in the future – we're constantly remembering and projecting. The present moment for us is actually razor thin. That's kind of what the book is about, for me – how we live in the past, present, and future all at once. We're all time travelers, in that sense.
STAY THIRSTY: Your day job is as a professor of creative writing at Clemson University. Do you feel that the creative process of writing can be taught or is it more a nurturing process as you engage your students in the concepts, principles and the technicalities of writing?
KEITH LEE MORRIS: I certainly hope that writing can be taught – otherwise, I've been wasting my time for the past 20 years. And I can point to dozens and dozens of examples of students who've improved tremendously over the period of time that I've worked with them. That being said, I do think that certain people just possess the right instincts from the start – they read great writing and absorb what they need to from it. It's a gift, and you can't teach it. But I'd still say that, overall, the most important attribute of a great writer is dogged persistence – nothing is more valuable in the long run than a willingness and determination to work past every obstacle that presents itself in one's path.